Web 2.0 needs Adobe to 'do the driving'

When I see ahead to the future that Web 2.0 holds, I see true interactive applications that run wherever you can find a browser, says Tom Yager

It’s thrilling to imagine rich, responsive, attractive client applications that run identically on desktops, notebooks, and mobile devices, as well as over remote connections. Java promised us that. Then .Net. Neither really came through with the kind of transparency and interoperability that Sun and Microsoft had led us to expect. Now, it looks like we’ve given up on commercial interests closing the application portability gap. Web 2.0 is touted as the way of applications to come, and on the face of it, it’s all about standards. We don’t have to wait for Microsoft, Sun, Symbian, or anyone to do next-generation software for us. All we need is a browser. We’ll do it ourselves.

I wish. A browser should be the perfect place to host an application. Standards such as HTML, DOM, CSS, JavaScript, JPG, WAV, PNG, XML, and MPEG are wired into every web browser of note on every device that can possibly connect to the internet. You should be able to take even a relatively demanding application — say, a unified messaging client — and run it on anything with a browser. But you can’t. Once you try to tackle something like that with AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), you quickly discover why Adobe Flash still exists, and why we’re lucky that Adobe is advancing it just in time to bridge the gap between Web 2.0 pipe dreams and wimpy browser reality.

I could lay out a lengthy theoretical case to make my point, but one already exists. CommuniGate Systems sells cross-platform unified messaging server software called CommuniGate Pro to mobile wireless operators and to businesses that host their own communications. And not coincidentally, a Flash client is part of the deal.

CommuniGate Pro uses standards-based technology to manage VoIP telephony, voice mail, instant messaging, electronic mail, and conferencing. CommuniGate Pro software supports as few as five users (you can run the five-user edition for free), but the same solution can be scaled out to handle 25 million VoIP subscribers. CommuniGate Systems has the server side of the messaging story down to the satisfaction of wireless and broadband service providers such as T-Mobile, Verizon, France Telecom, and China Unicom, as well as self-hosting enterprise operations such as eBay, GE, Toyota, and British Airways.

In the office, CommuniGate Pro uses gear from the likes of Cisco, Nortel, and Polycom to give users familiar desktop phone set access to voice mail, conferencing, and call management features they got from their pre-VoIP PBX systems. CommuniGate Pro also includes client software called Pronto that provides users of Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computers with a single point of access to telephone, voice mail, email, multimedia playback, scheduling, file sharing, and other services. Pronto is written using Adobe’s Flash Player/Shockwave and Flex technology, and this September, CommuniGate Systems will begin shipping a version of Pronto for Windows Mobile smartphones and PDAs.

CommuniGate is pushing Pronto toward Windows Mobile devices at first, because that’s where it perceives Adobe as being furthest along in development of the mobilised edition of the Flex rich-client framework, Flash Lite. This appears to be changing, though, because Adobe recently announced that Verizon has shipped the first Flash Lite-enabled handsets based on the BREW (Qualcomm’s Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) platform.

Flash Lite delivers the SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) standard, XML persistence, hardware-level device drivers (which CommuniGate needs for VoIP, for example), ActionScript 2.0, and Flash Player 7 compatibility, but manages to scale down to fit the microcontrollers used in mobile phone handsets and PDAs. Pieces of Pronto could have been tackled without Adobe Flash Lite and Flex, but the result would not have the smooth, responsive feel of a desktop application, and off-line access to media files and rich document attachments would be difficult to manage.

Flash Lite runs in parallel with other Web 2.0-friendly efforts at Adobe that include the open-sourcing of Adobe’s ActionScript JavaScript engine and the baking of PDF and open source Webkit (Safari’s HTML renderer) support into a comprehensive Adobe Integrated Runtime that hopes to do for rich graphical applications what Java has done for servers.

When I see ahead to the future that Web 2.0 holds, I don’t just see websites dressed up to look like high-latency desktop applications. I see true interactive applications, such as CommuniGate’s Pronto unified messaging client, that run wherever you can find a browser. I can understand why some might be disappointed that such things can’t be done with AJAX alone. Blame Microsoft, Mozilla, and Apple for that; “browser as a platform” has been on their to-do lists for years, and none has raised HTML rendering and caching performance, standards compliance, stability, or JavaScript engine speed to levels sufficient to support true applications. With Adobe doing the driving, I think we’ll soon see some action.

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Tags technologyadobeflashvoipWeb 2.0browser

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